By: MADDI MCGILLVRAY
Premiering earlier this year at SXSW and featured in the 2018 Inside Out LGBQT Film Festival lineup, What Keeps You Alive is a Canadian horror film that asks the question: “What would you do if the person you love the most turns on you?”
The film follows Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) who settle into a remote cabin in the woods on the eve of their one-year wedding anniversary. After a sudden reveal about one of the character’s past sharply interrupts their romantic getaway, the two become embroiled in a merciless battle against the most unexpected of adversaries: each other. Mayhem comes from all different directions, forcing the women to engage in vicious psychological warfare that will test their limits in order to survive.
What Keeps You Alive is the third film director Colin Minihan and actress Brittany Allen have worked on together after Extraterrestrial (2014) and It Stains the Sands Red (2016). Rue Morgue got the exclusive opportunity to sit down with the real life couple to discuss the bloody details of their latest collaboration.
I’m sure you both must get this question a lot, but how do you find working together as a couple?
C: It sucks!
B: Yeah it was the worst! No I’m kidding. This is the third film we’ve made together and on the first one we were newly falling in love and so that was all easy peasy. Then in the second film we were sorting out our shit.
C: And we were in the desert stuck together! That was hard. We were also living together when we made it. The key on this one though, I mean it’s obviously challenging being in a couple in this stressful and emotionally driven environment, but we were smart and decided not to live together during shooting.
B: We also figured out how to set the boundaries a little bit more and really tried to maintain a professional relationship as best as we could on set. But I also think the fact that we are so close to each other can also be very helpful too. Colin knows my best work, but also my buttons to push. Even if in the moment I’m seething, it might be exactly what the scene calls for. We really push each other to be our best selves in a lot of ways… you know, when we’re not doing the opposite.
C: This movie was different too because she [Brittney] scored it. Usually I’ll shoot the movie and I’m living with it for like eight more months editing it and making the final touches.
B: And I’m usually like why are you so stressed out?
C: Yeah and she’s moved on by the time the shoot is done. But this one was different because we were very much working on the project from beginning to end. It was convenient having her scoring in bed beside me because I could just give notes whenever as opposed to coming into a composer’s studio and hearing it for the first time, which is always super nerve wracking because you don’t really know where it’s going to sit. We were able to pull it all together a bit easier.
B: It really was a lot of fun. We each had our clearly defined roles throughout, but it also really felt collaborative in a very fulfilling way.
Brittney you also worked alongside Hannah Emily Anderson in last year’s Jisgaw. What was it like collaborating with her again?
B: I actually only met Hannah in passing twice on the set of Jigsaw because we didn’t have any scenes together. Both times I was struck by her and when we were casting this film, it was actually a kind of last minute search for Hannah’s role. A couple of things fell through at the last minute, so it was a frantic search to find someone to play that incredibly important and challenging role. I was working on a MOW in Montreal and I was talking to my makeup artist at the time who was filled in on all the drama and she had worked with Hannah a summer earlier and she presented: what about Hannah Emily Anderson?
C: What did you ask her?
B: I said we need someone who can be endearing at first and can also play my romantic partner in this. We needed someone who has a very likeable quality, but can also turn that off. Somehow she suggested Hannah and crazily enough as lovely as Hannah is, I knew from my brief encounters with her that she could likely play that.
C: She’s very hard to read at first. I was already living way out of town prepping the movie when all of the casting drama unfolded with the lead. We were kind of already done the audition process and there was nothing really there that I wanted to move forward with, so I ended up on a whim taking a call with Hannah. The internet was so bad I couldn’t even Skype her because we were pretty remote. From just a ten minute phone call I left feeling disturbed by her lack of emotion. I was like “I hate her I can’t cast her…” and then ten minutes later I was like “Wait, I’m afraid of her!” All I had to do was talk to her on the phone and I was afraid of her, like when does that ever happen? I’d also watched all of her work and demo reel and had seen different looks of her. I was trying to picture her in the role and I flipped the coin and got really lucky in the end.
B: And now she’s one of our closest friends and working with her was just incredible. I learned so much. I think we both complimented each other really well. I think it was maybe one of the first weeks of filming and there was one scene we were shooting out in the forest, and shooting an indie film out in the forest every day is massive, especially when there’s just two leads. So you finish one day and you’re like “thank God I made it” and then you realize you have to do it again the next day. It was the Friday of the first week and we were dragging each other through the woods and she was there and she was down. It was in that moment that I was like, “Oh we’ve got the right girl!”
The film centres on a queer couple. How did you approach writing and representing these characters on screen?
C: I didn’t write it at first as a same sex couple. I’d actually wanted to develop a role for a friend of mine who’s a guy, and for a while it looked like that was going to happen. Everything shifted because he ended up on a year-long running series and he couldn’t do the movie. The thing is that when you’re writing a script the characters can kind of reveal something totally other than what you had envisioned. I actually fought against that initial kind of revealing that the movie might be suitable for a same sex couple because I just had this narrow vision of wanting to cast my friend in this role. It was an interesting moment when he had to step away because I had this gut feeling like a year prior that I blocked out that I suddenly had the opportunity to go back to. It ended up being pretty challenging because there was a lot of rewriting. Tons of the dialogue stayed the same for Hannah’s character, which I originally wrote for a guy. But the essence of Britt’s character changed more than anything because I had her playing more of a subservient type of woman who was trying to find her strength. Now, they both very much start as equals in terms of the relationship. When I’m writing I just try to follow my instinct and block everything else out and this just revealed itself.
B: And a lot of the nuances of their relationship revealed themselves very close to the shoot too. You know, the sudden bursts of inspiration kind of thing.
C: It was a frantic week before the shoot that I basically re-wrote the entire character.
B: But I was personally so excited by the change and the opportunity to represent a queer couple and also to have fun with that myself. From the first day of shooting Colin was like, “speak lower, drop into your voice more, come at this with more strength.” So I was able to play a women who wasn’t concerned with her appearance whatsoever. I was projecting something different than maybe I was always used to projecting in my personal life. It was really liberating.
C: I’m also really happy that the sexuality is just kind of there too. It doesn’t make a thing of it, which I think is super important because it shouldn’t really be part of the conversation.
So often these types of hero/villain face-offs in horror are highly gendered -i.e. a psychotic machete wielding man vs a female victim. How does it impact the film when the antagonist is a woman?
B: Totally! And that was something that I was quite resistant to in the script as Colin was developing it. I just didn’t want to be tortured at the hands of a man. I’ve done a number of horror films now and it was much better being tortured by the hands of a woman.
I can’t help but feel a similarity to the film High Tension. Did you draw any inspiration from this?
C: Sure, I mean I haven’t seen High Tension in like ten years now, but I love that movie and I remember revisiting it by looking at stills. The styling of Britt’s character is more influenced than anything from that film.
The setting is very beautiful and serene. Why did you chose to situate such a violent narrative in a cabin in the Canadian wilderness?
C: Honestly, the primary reason is just the practicality of it. First off, writing is so challenging to begin with and it’s even more challenging when you’re just putting things on the page when you have no idea how you’re going to convince someone to give you the means to go and make the thing. I tend to write scripts that have a limited amount of characters and locations in them so that if I can’t get the movie made through the traditional investor or studio financing route, I can just go raise the money myself and make them independently. And you’re trapped there too. There’s something that I just find so appealing about that. I try to avoid calling it a ‘cabin in the woods movie’ because it seems derivative, but we were really lucky with the location we found. The producers found this database in Northern Ontario and at the very bottom of the page on the list of locations there was this one spot that had only ever been filmed in once. I cold called the guy and we got super lucky. That house is such a set piece that it looks like we built the thing. From a production standpoint everything in the movie, whether its a bookshelf or the couches, was already there. So we just moved stuff around. The owner was this amazing hoarder and just had all this stuff.
The film plays with the fear that we can never really know what is going on in your partner’s head. Can you elaborate on this?
C: Well we all think that we know ourselves and what we’re capable of, but I don’t think that we can ever truly know ourselves. We just kind of latch onto an identity and we try to mold ourselves to what that identity is. That’s how we define who we are. So if we’re not really capable of knowing who we are, than how can you possibly know the deepest, darkest secrets of your loved one. For me that’s an amazingly appealing concept because I can’t ever get inside [turns to Brittney] that head of yours. No matter how much I want to.
B: I do have these moments, because we know each other so well, where I go, “Oh, do I even know you at all?” There are times where I just wonder, “What are you thinking right now?” You might be saying one thing, and we’re very honest and open with each other, but still.
C: I’ve got some darkness in there.
B: Well that’s probably more of where it comes from.
C: I think that darkness inspired a lot of the film.